JONATHAN DEMME (1944-1017): We met once, in his office, when I was a journalist. I listened to him pitch a grim movie to a studio head. The guy wasn’t buying it — no way could he market the bodies of Cuban refugees washing up on the sands of Palm Beach — but Jonathan hammered away, emphasizing the upside: “He’s going through doors! He thinks he’s going through doors!” After, we talked about “Silence of the Lambs.” Jonathan wanted to cast Michelle Pfeiffer. I had profiled Jodie Foster, and I was sure that she was a better choice. “Jodie’s supported her family since was 3 — she’s the most authentic blue-collar actress working,” I said. Jonathan was unconvinced. Then he was. Oscars followed. I can think of a dozen directors and producers who have blown off my advice. But Jonathan was open and curious. He loved the adventure of film — he only seemed to see the upside. To be in his presence was to feel that something creative, fun and rewarding might be just around the corner.
Weeks like this, I miss Bill Hicks.
“This is kind of a sentimental night for me,” Bill Hicks says at the start of “Rant in E-Minor,” the CD that best showcases his one-of-a-kind comedy. “This is the final live performance I’ll ever do. Ever.”
The reason, he explains, is that he’s scored a contract for a TV show.
But that’s a lie.
The real reason is that he’s months away from dying of pancreatic cancer. He’s keeping it a secret. So in February of 1994, connoisseurs of comedy were shocked to learn that Bill Hicks was dead — at 32. But in 1993, at the performances that grew up to be “Rant in E-Minor”, audiences got something equally shocking: a comedian already over the edge inexplicably going further than ever before.
For those not acquainted with the man, his work and his legend, let’s begin with the most basic fact: Bill Hicks was the most corrosive comedian since Lenny Bruce. But at the same time, Bill Hicks was perhaps the smartest, most thoughtful, far seeing and deep feeling of all American comedians. He looked down at politics from a great height and saw that it was bad, and said so. He looked up and met God (okay, so he was on mushrooms) and saw that was good, and said so. And though he defined humanity as “a virus, with shoes,” he tried to bring Enlightenment to every person at every show.
Those two sides, never in balance, made for exciting shows. On the CD assembled from these final performances, they made for classics.
Let’s lighten things up and talk about abortion, shall we?
Bill Hicks, born in Georgia, came to his life’s work early. As a kid, he memorized Woody Allen routines. He did his first gig at 13. He stumbled through high school; college wasn’t even a thought. At 18, the “road years” began. From the beginning, he mixed brutal political and social analysis with potty-mouth rants. He was, he said, “Noam Chomsky with dick jokes.” [To buy the CD of “Rant in E-Minor” from Amazon and get the MP3 download free, click here. To buy the MP3 download of “Rant” from Amazon, click here. To buy the Bill Hicks biography, “American Scream,” from Amazon, click here. To buy the DVD of “Bill Hicks Live: Satirist, Social Critic, Stand-Up Comedian” from Amazon. click here.]
An act like this produces strong responses. One irate listener leveled a gun at Hicks; another broke his ankle. Many simply walked out, sometimes in packs. Bill Hicks never considered softening his routines. “It’s always funny until someone gets hurt,” he said. “Then it’s just hilarious.”
If the FBI’s motivating factor for busting down the Koresh compound [in Waco, Texas] was child abuse, how come we never see Bradley tanks smashing into Catholic churches?
It’s not quite accurate to say that Bill Hicks, as a libertarian, was equally dismissive of both traditional parties. He was very clear on one point: The right wing — especially the Christian part of it — was beneath contempt. The question was how much beneath. Some of his friends, he noted, thought right-to-lifers were “idiots.” Others, he said, thought right-to-lifers were “evil fucks.”
A lot of Christians wear crosses around their necks. Do you think when Jesus comes back he ever wants to look at a fucking cross? It’s kinda like going up to Jackie Onassis with a rifle pendant on.
The political stuff is amazingly undated. Hicks does a chilling bit about a session each new president has with some very powerful dudes. They say nothing, just lower a movie screen — and show one short piece of film. [What is it? Sorry, I’m not spoiling that joke.] When it ends, they ask, “Any questions?” Oddly, the president has none.
I’ll show you politics in America: ‘I think the puppet on the right shares my beliefs.’ ‘I think the puppet on the left is more to my liking.’ ‘Wait, there’s one guy holding up both puppets!’
Hicks stopped taking drugs early. But he never repudiated them — marijuana was a natural substance, so how could it be unnatural to smoke it? And mushrooms were a “squeegee” for the Third Eye; there was no quicker path to ultimate truth.
If you don’t believe drugs have done good things for us, then go home and burn all your records, all your tapes, and all your CDs. Because every one of those artists who made brilliant music and enhanced your lives — they were real fucking high on drugs. The Beatles were so fucking high they let Ringo sing a few songs.
And then, in a flash, nasty. He hated television and urged Jay Leno — who had helped him early in his career — to kill himself on camera. He imagined a show called “Let’s Hunt and Kill Billy Ray Cyrus” and really got excited describing it. And then, in another flash, talking philosophy.
“The best kind of comedy to me.” Hicks said, “is when you make people laugh at things they’ve never laughed at, and also take a light into the darkened corners of people’s minds, exposing them to the light. I thought the whole point was to make you feel un-alone. Many thoughts I have are not my own thoughts. You know what I mean? They’re not secret thoughts.”
I felt that a lot as I listened to “Rant in E-minor,” generally considered his masterpiece. But I am compelled to share that my wife had her head in her hands for much of this CD. Indeed, there are a few bits so gross that once is more than enough. But just when you think that, he’ll come up with something lovely. Like: wondering why all the drug stories on television news are bummers, he’ll do this newscaster bit:
Today a young man on acid realized that all matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration, that we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively, there is no such thing as death, life is only a dream, and we are the imagination of ourselves. Here’s Tom with the weather.
Bill Hicks saw the thin veneer beneath the thin veneer. He wanted better. And the way to get to better, he believed, was through sermons intended to knock audiences of lame sinners back in their seats so they’ll finally realize they’re not just going to hell, they’re living in it right now. And maybe then they’ll get off their asses and do something. Comedy? Not quite. But for a bomb-thrower, he was damn funny.
And this wasn’t just an act — he meant it. His last statement: “I left in love, in laughter, and in truth, and wherever truth, love and laughter abide, I am there in spirit.”
This is not a CD you’ll break out for just anybody. It’s not a CD, for that matter, many people will find amusing. But if you have a penchant for the bent and disruptive, Bill Hicks is the funniest dead man not working. And the most interesting? Consider…
The World is like a ride in an amusement park, and when you choose to go on it you think it’s real, because that’s how powerful our minds are. And the ride goes up and down and round and round, and it has thrills and chills and is very brightly colored, and it’s very loud. And it’s fun, for a while.
Some people have been on the ride for a long time, and they’ve begun to question, ‘Is this real, or is this just a ride?’, and other people have remembered, and they’ve come back to us and they say ‘Hey, don’t worry. Don’t be afraid, ever, because this is just a ride.’ and we KILL THOSE PEOPLE.
“Shut him up! We have a lot invested in this ride! SHUT HIM UP! Look at my furrows of worry. Look at my big bank account, and my family. This just has to be real.”
It’s just a ride.
But we always kill those good guys who try and tell us that. You ever noticed that? And let the demons run amok. But it doesn’t matter, because … It’s just a ride.
And we can change it anytime we want. It’s only a choice. No effort, no work, no job, no savings of money. A choice, right now, between fear and love. The eyes of fear wants you to put bigger locks on your door, buy guns, close yourself off. The eyes of love see all of us as one.
This article originally appeared on The Head Butler
Photo credit: Versus Battle